ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey may be furious about Russian incursions into its air space but beyond words of protest there is little it can do, with its dependence on Russian energy and trade keeping its hands tied, and its own Syria policy in disarray.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said he is losing patience with Russian jets crossing the border after Moscow launched an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week. “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” he warned.
The military alliance has, rhetorically at least, leapt to Turkey’s defense, describing the Russian violations as “extremely dangerous”, raising the prospect of direct confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries.
Russia’s actions are galling for Erdogan, who has lobbied in vain for Assad’s removal. The Syrian army carried out what appeared to be its first major assault backed by Russian air strikes on Wednesday, highlighting how Turkey has been left impotent as the conflict over its southern border takes on an increasingly international dimension.
“Russia coming in highlights that Turkey’s policies in Syria are not working,” said Jonathan Friedman, Turkey analyst at Stroz Friedberg, a risk consultancy.
“You’ve seen over time Russia and the U.S. taking stronger roles in the region. That constrains regional actors’ abilities to influence developments.”
Turkey shares a 900 km (560 mile) border with Syria and has shouldered much of the humanitarian fall-out from the civil war, now spilling into a fifth year. It has kept an open border policy throughout the conflict, taking in more than 2.2 million refugees at a cost of $7.6 billion and rising.
A member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, it has, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, backed anti-Assad insurgents, some of who have been targeted by the Russian air strikes. It has also lobbied for the creation of a “no-fly zone” or a “safe zone” near its border with northern Syria, a proposal that has failed to resonate in Washington.
“For Turkey there isn’t a whole lot of room for maneuver ... All they’ve got left is this tough guy rhetoric,” said one Western diplomat based in Ankara.
Long reluctant to take a frontline military role against Islamic State, Turkey in July made a dramatic shift in policy, opening its air bases for use in coalition air strikes and sending its own planes into action in northern Syria.
Its then-foreign minister said in August “comprehensive” joint air strikes with the United States would begin soon, a plan Ankara hoped would lead to the creation of a safe zone along its border. But there has been little progress.
“Turkey ought to be involved deeply in any Syria resolution, given its strategic and geographical position, but it remains a minor player in the coalition, and is pushing unattainable policy goals,” the diplomat said.
“For the time being Turkey is simply acting as a huge aircraft carrier, with its nicely positioned bases.”
Russia’s air strikes, which mean Russian planes as well as those of the United States and its allies are flying combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, have made the prospects of the “no-fly zone” Turkey has long campaigned for look more remote than ever.
That could be a blessing in disguise for Ankara, according to Aykan Erdemir, non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Russia’s presence seriously limits Turkey’s options, forcing Ankara to be more cautious and prudent in the Middle East,” he told Reuters.
“I think the safe zone is off the table and that’s probably a disaster averted for Turkey. Ultimately it would have gotten out of control ... Turkey could have been drawn into a forever war,” he said.
Turkey is highly sensitive to threats to its border security, and Erdogan, commander-in-chief of its armed forces, is ill-disposed to being threatened.
“There is no hesitation over border protection. Relations between Turkey and Russia are good but it is impossible to ignore what happened in the last few days and we will not do so,” one senior official told Reuters.
But with winter approaching, when energy demand peaks, and a parliamentary election on Nov. 1 where the ruling AK Party is desperate to claw back its majority, there are compelling domestic reasons for Erdogan to avoid confrontation with Moscow.
Turkey imports almost all of its energy, including 60 percent of its gas and 35 percent of its oil, from Russia. Russians also make up a large and growing proportion of Turkey’s tourist traffic, key for financing its current account deficit.
Trade ties are deepening. Russia’s state Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) is due to build Turkey’s first nuclear power station, a $20 billion project, while plans are on the table for a gas pipeline from Russia known as TurkStream.
“Both sides will act carefully in order to prevent a crisis. In the present situation, neither have the luxury of ruining the relations,” said Hasan Selim Özertem, Russia and Caucasus analyst at the Ankara based think-tank, USAK.
Ali Sahin, deputy head of foreign relations in the AK Party, said Russia’s actions constituted a risk for the future of bilateral relations but made clear neither had an interest in the situation deteriorating.
“Turkey has clearly expressed its annoyance and has brought NATO on board. Turkey’s rules of engagement are clear,” he told Reuters. “But I don’t think Russia will continue these actions and let relations sour.”
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; David Dolan, Humeyra Pamuk and Akin Aytekin in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood